Will crew chief Steve Letarte be able to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in victory lane at Talladega this Sunday for the first time in nearly 10 years? (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Talladega: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 10-year winless streak at the track he used to dominate?

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As hard as it may seem to believe, it’s been nearly 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr., last won a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

That’s 10 years at a track where Junior once dominated so much that many of his fans started calling NASCAR’s largest oval “The House that Junior Built” (even though his father won 10 times there in his own career).

The younger Earnhardt won five of his first 10 starts at the massive and sprawling 2.66-mile layout at Talladega, including four wins in a row (fall 2001 through spring 2003, as well as fall 2004).

Junior was essentially the Jimmie Johnson of his day in the way he dominated at Talladega. It wasn’t just a track, it was HIS track.

It got to the point where the majority of fans that attended every Cup race there were decked out in some kind of red-and-white Junior regalia, be it a ball cap, t-shirt, jacket or similar, all proudly touting the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet and the team he drove for, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

While toasting him with a Budweiser, of course!

But since his last win there in 2004, it seems like good fortune has turned its back on Junior.

In the 18 races since then, Earnhardt has managed just three top-five finishes (including two runner-ups) and two other top-10 showings.

That’s it.

In the 13 other starts he finished 20th or worst eight times, including recording four of his five career DNFs there.

What’s happened to Junior? Why can’t he go back to the way he used to be at ‘Dega, without question the most dominating driver there from 2001 through 2005 and when the now-defunct DEI was the crème de la crème of restrictor plate racing.

But it wasn’t all about Junior, either, at DEI.

During that same five-year period, Michael Waltrip earned all four of his career Cup wins (in 775 career starts). Three came at Daytona (including two in the Daytona 500 – with his first coming in the tragic 2001 race in which Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash while trying to protect Waltrip’s and Junior’s 1-2 finish) and the other win occurred at Talladega.

The common denominator between Waltrip and Junior: 11 of their 12 combined wins came on plate tracks while both drove for DEI – and those 11 wins came in a span of four seasons (2001-04).

Add in the winless-yet-still-productive 2005 season and the former teammates also combined for five runner-up finishes and four third-place showings in those five seasons, for a total of 20 races between them.

All-told, Junior has eight wins on plate tracks, five at Talladega and three at Daytona.

So why has Junior struggled at plate tracks since moving from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008? How is it that he’s managed just one plate track win (this year’s season-opening Daytona 500) since 2004?

Or, looking at the glass half-full, with his win at Daytona two months ago, is Junior poised to go off on another DEI-like plate track winning run with another triumph this Sunday in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega?

If he were to do so, it would make Junior the second driver (Joey Logano did so with his second win of 2014 this past Saturday at Richmond) to cement his entry into this year’s expanded and revised Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When Junior moved to HMS, predictions and expectations were both high. He had uncanny resources and something that he never had at DEI: an organization with a history of Cup championships.

At the time Junior changed his Cup address, HMS had seven championships to its credit. Today, it has 11.

If Earnhardt were to win Sunday’s race, he may finally be able to finish what he started way back in 2001 when he won his first plate race: win again at ‘Dega and end the season with his first Cup championship, as well.

He’s long overdue for both.

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Josef Newgarden channels his inner ‘Ted Crasnick,’ fools almost all IndyCar drivers

"Ted Crasnick," aka Josef Newgarden, in action Thursday. (Photo courtesy ESPN)
(Photos courtesy ESPN)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Ted Crasnick stole the show during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 media day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Who?

Well, Crasnick’s alter ego is IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden, who dressed up with heavy makeup, a huge fake nose and looked like something out of the 1950s — and then pretended to be a member of the media.

“I wanted to do this idea three years ago,” Newgarden said. “I wanted to first do it as a yellow shirt (track security), but logistically it would have been too difficult.”

Newgarden’s plan finally came to fruition when ESPN agreed to tag along with him during media day for a feature that will be aired Sunday on ABC’s pre-race show before the Indianapolis 500.

“ESPN and I decided together this would be a better idea to do it in the media crowd and I’d be part of the media.”

Newgarden was part of the second scheduled group of drivers that came through later in the session, allowing him to transform into “Ted” for the opening segment – and with no one being the wiser.

Well, almost no one.

Crasnick/Newgarden fooled everyone – with the exception of Will Power. Even one of Newgarden’s best buddies, Graham Rahal, fell for the ruse.

“Will Power was the only guy that knew it was me, and I was shocked he figured it out,” Newgarden said. “No one else knew. Oriol (Servia) didn’t know, Helio (Castroneves) didn’t know, Graham, I don’t think knew. Mikhail (Aleshin) was just awkward to talk to.”

Even Newgarden’s boss, Ed Carpenter, was completely in the dark.

“Ed didn’t know,” Newgarden said. “The one guy that probably should have known it was me didn’t know it was me.”

Newgarden’s alter ego posed as a “reporter” from several outlets, including HarveyWorld.com, Boca Raton Senior Society, ProstateHealth.com and RVWorld.com.

Josef Newgarden begins his transformation into "Ted Crasnick" Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Josef Newgarden midway through his transformation into “Ted Crasnick” Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo courtesy ESPN)

Two of “Crasnick’s” most memorable exchanges were with Oriol Servia and Helio Castroneves.

“Oreo, good to meet you. You’re named after a cookie, I understand,” Crasnick said. … “Oreo, I love that name, it’s so sweet.”

To his credit, Servia played it straight and answered all of Crasnick’s questions, even one that involved, uh, err, “relieving” himself in his race car during a race.

Now, Castroneves was a whole different story.

“Helio lost words about halfway through,” Newgarden said with a laugh. “I’ve never seen him at a loss for words.

“That was the funniest part. I was asking him about peeing in the car and he was so confused about what I was asking him that he just didn’t know what to say.”

Check out a few hits from social media showing “Crasnick” at work:

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Guess who showed up at Indy? New NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 26:  Mark Martin, driver of the #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, stands in the garage arstands in the garage areaduring practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samuel Deeds 400 At The Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 26, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Newly NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee-elect Mark Martin isn’t even entered in either race, but he’ll be doing the proverbial motorsports “double” on Sunday.

Martin will be in Indianapolis for the start of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. A few hours after the green flag drops on the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, he’ll be on a plane headed for Charlotte to take in the Coca-Cola 600 that evening.

Actually, there’s a bit more to all that. Martin felt he had such little chance to be chosen for the Hall that he left his native Arkansas earlier this week to attend the 500.

“It was a bucket list sorta thing,” he said.

But then came Wednesday’s announcement that he had been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2017 – while he was on the road headed to Indy, no less – and Martin’s travel plans suddenly got a lot more complicated.

He was in Indy on Thursday, attending Indianapolis 500 media day. He flies to Charlotte Friday afternoon, returns to Indy on Saturday, and then does the Indianapolis-Charlotte jaunt on Sunday.

“I was speechless, still not sure what to say, other than I’m surprised,” Martin said of his selection for the NASCAR Hall. “If I’d been voting, I’d have voted another way.

“But I’m humbled and honored and not only to be in this class because of the performance of the people in this class and the people, the persons they were. … I just feel really fortunate. It’s like icing on the cake, like the race you never won but always wanted to, and more.”

To further illustrate his total surprise at being chosen for the Hall, Martin quipped, “I did not expect it, or otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the motor home driving up here yesterday.

“I hadn’t been to (the Indy 500) in my lifetime, so now it appears I’m going to be doing the ‘double.’ I’m not driving, but I’m doing the ‘double’ anyway.”

Here’s a few posts from Martin’s Twitter account about his time at IMS on Thursday as well as his selection for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

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Oh, Canada! James Hinchcliffe hopes to repay countrymen for support with Indy 500 win

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Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS — Polesitter James Hinchcliffe wants to obviously win Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 for himself and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

He also wants to win for his family – all 35 million of them.

Hinchcliffe understands very well the huge significance of what his being in the 500 means to everyone in his native Canada.

Since winning the pole, Hinchcliffe has been front-page news from Halifax to Vancouver. He also knows millions of his fellow Canadians will be watching the 500 on television and cheering for the guy who proudly wears the maple leaf.

“After last Sunday, the amount of support pouring out of home was very overwhelming,” Hinchcliffe said during Thursday’s Indy 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “The amount of messages I got that were ‘regardless of what happens Sunday (in the Indy 500), we’re all behind you,’ that’s so nice.”

Now Hinchcliffe hopes to repay the faith his countrymen have had in him throughout his racing career.

“Being the only full-time Canadian driver in the field. I want to do my country proud,” Hinchcliffe said. “I want to give Canadian motorsports fans something to cheer for.”

Hinchcliffe is one of a number of IndyCar drivers that have hailed from north of the border. Among those have been Paul Tracy (from Scarborough, Ontario), Scott Goodyear (Toronto), Alex Tagliani (Montreal) and Patrick Carpentier (LaSalle, Quebec). Tagliani, who starts 33rd, book-ends the field of 33 this year.

And let’s not forget Jacques Villeneuve (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec), the only Canadian to ever win the 500, having done so in 1995, ironically when Goodyear passed the pace car.

“The support I’ve felt from back home from Day 1 of my IndyCar career has just been incredible,” said Hinchcliffe, who hails from the outlying Toronto suburb of Oakville. “We’ve had some good years and bad years, and regardless of the results and in true Canadian fashion, they’re behind you win, lose or draw.

“It’s just incredible. I’ve gotten so lucky to come from that place. To know you have that support and they’re behind you in any situation is huge.”

While Hinchcliffe was a huge Villeneuve fan, the one Indy car driver that he has tried to emulate in his career is the late Greg Moore, who was killed in a crash at Fontana, California, in 1999.

Moore never got the chance to race at Indianapolis, primarily due to the split between CART and the Indy Racing League in 1996.

“Obviously, we lost him too soon,” Hinchcliffe said of Moore. “I was a huge (Jacques) Villeneuve fan. He was really the guy that got me into it (Indy car racing).

“And when he switched to F1, sure, I followed his F1 career very closely, but in IndyCar, his replacement was Greg Moore. And that’s the guy that really connected with me somehow, and not just how he drove.

“There were a lot of bad-fast racing drivers, but Greg was a really great human being. That was the guy that I looked at and thought, ‘Hey, if I ever get to do this for a living, that’s the guy I want to be like.”

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Indy 500 Thursday notes: Logos, lights, Lilly, lunches and more

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Photo: Dale Coyne Racing
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INDIANAPOLIS – The beauty of media day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is that you get a lot of interviews done. The downside of media day is that you then have to transcribe those interviews.

Alas, even though on-track activity was limited to just Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires practice and qualifying, it’s still been a busy day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Quick notes are below:

  • 101st500logoThe logo for the 101st Indy 500 and the “race to renew” were unveiled. Much, of course, is being made about the 100th running of the race and as you’d expect, the powers-that-be are concerned with the retention plan for the 101st race, which will take place May 28, 2017. A full release from IMS is linked here, while the logo is posted to the right.
  • Indy Lights qualifying got canceled. Not from a lack of effort. Practice was shortened from three hours – 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. – to just 90 minutes from 9 to 10:30. Juan Piedrahita led the way for Team Pelfrey. Qualifying then got through the first eight drivers before an accident for Zachary Claman De Melo and then rain hit. Carlin’s Ed Jones will have the pole position, with the field set by points, over Santiago Urrutia and Kyle Kaiser. The race airs live at noon on Friday as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, which begins at 11 a.m. ET.
  • Other lights announced. “Lights at the Brickyard” was announced late Wednesday, to tentatively run from Nov. 18 to Dec. 31. Here’s that full release.
  • Lilly to Conor Daly’s car. Lilly Diabetes joins Conor Daly’s No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda as co-primary sponsor. From a team release: “Lilly Diabetes of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company (LLY) will serve as co-primary sponsor of the No. 18 ShirtsForAmerica.com/Lilly Diabetes Honda, driven by Conor Daly, in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 29. As part of the sponsorship, Daly’s No. 18 car will run a special patriotic paint scheme with a series of four stars, one colored in blue to recognize the one in four veterans who live with diabetes, which is two and a half times greater than the general population.”
  • Newgarden “wins” media day. My colleague Jerry Bonkowski have a boat load of interviews to get through that you’ll see on NBCSports.com throughout the coming days. But a quick hat tip first to the Indianapolis Star, who already has this post up on Josef Newgarden’s prank as an interviewer himself.
  • Pennzoil, Penske host lunch. Team Penske’s usual Thursday night media dinner shifted to being a lunch this afternoon to pay tribute to its partnership with Shell Pennzoil – Pennzoil adorns the No. 3 “Yelio Submarine” Chevrolet driven by Helio Castroneves – and to prepare for the 100th Indianapolis 500 race. Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya all spoke along with Roger Penske, Tim Cindric and a key Shell executive. Penske said IndyCar has “one of the best products” and is determined for his team to win his 17th Indianapolis 500 with any of its four drivers.
  • So does Townsend Bell with California Pizza Kitchen. Based on the pics below, we’re in for a doozy tomorrow as part of our Carb Day coverage.

  • Which speaking of that coverage… It runs from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN and will feature Carb Day practice, the Indy Lights Freedom 100, and the 2016 Pit Stop Competition.

The Pit Stop Competition bracket is below:

PitStopComp16

More to come from Indy later today and tomorrow.